Travel Destinations

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Salem: Oregon’s Often Overlooked Middle Child

Oregon State Capitol, Salem
Oregon State Capitol in Salem
Salem.  No, not that one, the other one.  The Salem in Oregon.  You know, Oregon’s state capitol. 

Salem is not your typical tourist destination.  Most travelers to Oregon never visit Salem, and if they are driving, just speed on through, heading to Portland or Oregon’s coastal towns.  Even though Salem is Oregon’s state capitol, it still has a small town feel.  Not only does Salem have some not to be missed attractions of its own, it also makes a great base to explore nearby sites, such as the covered bridges of Cottage Grove, the waterfalls and gardensof Silverton, and the wines and other culinary delights of the WillametteValley.  When I researched Salem, it seemed to me like it had plenty to offer travelers and needed some attention, much like an overlooked middle child.

Salem’s Museums

One thing I love to do when traveling is visit historic homes.  I enjoy learning about the history of the homes and imagining what it must have been like to live in the time periods of the original residents.  I also enjoy the architecture and furnishings.  Salem has two historical homes open to the public. 

We visited the Historic Deepwood Estate.  The home is a Queen Anne Victorian built in 1894.  It was designed by William C. Knighton, who later became Oregon’s state architect.  There are manicured gardens and a nature trail that can also be enjoyed.  The home contains a number of beautiful stained glass windows by the Povey Brothers, which was the west coast equivalent of Tiffany glass.  The home comes with a sad story, as the son of the family died in a shipwreck while the house was being built, and the family never actually resided in the home. 

Historic Deepwood Estate, Salem, Oregon
Historic Deepwood Estate.
While the gardens can be visited at any time, the Historic Deepwood Estate can only be viewed with a guided tour.  Our guide seemed to love the house and its history, and enjoyed sharing her knowledge with others.  Keep your eyes open for the player piano, which not only has perforations in the scrolls to play specific songs, but also has the words included on the scroll.  Early karaoke!  Portions of the original wallpaper can also still be seen.  The Friends of Deepwood, who operate the museum, are taking great care to preserve the home. 

Historic Deepwood Estate, Salem, Oregon
The dining room of the Historic Deepwood Estate with an example of Povey Brothers glass.
We also visited the Willamette Heritage Center at the Mill, the home of Salem’s old woolen mill.  The center actually has two separate exhibits, the Early Settlement Homes and the Thomas Kay Woolen Mill.  Both can either be toured independently, or with a docent.  If you have the time, I suggest taking advantage of the docent led tours, but be sure to set a few hours aside for the visit. 

The four historic buildings which comprise the Early Settlement Homes are not original to the site, but were moved to the property decades ago.  They date back to the 1840s and 1850s, and are restored and furnished in the style of the period.  They were built as part of the Methodist Mission to Oregon, when missionaries traveled by boat from the east coast to Oregon to Christianize the Native Americans.  The docents who lead the tours of the homes dress in period costumes and take on the persona of one of the original missionaries. 

Early Settlement Homes, Willamette Heritage Center at the Mill, Salem, Oregon
The crazy thing is people lived in the top floor before the inside staircase was built.
The second part of the complex is the Thomas Kay Woolen Mill, which was founded by Thomas Lister Kay in 1889.  Sadly the mill closed in 1962, but it has been preserved as a museum and is the only woolen mill museum west of Missouri.  The mill was operated by water powered turbines and produced fabric and blankets, including army blankets, for over seventy years under the direction of four generations of the Kay family.  The original machinery is on display.  In addition to learning about the mill and how the various machines were used, we also learned the origins of a number of wool related sayings including wool gathering, being on tenterhooks, and pulling the wool over one’s eyes.   My favorite is pulling the wool over one’s eyes, which originated from the fact that men’s wigs were made of wool and criminals would pull their victims’ wigs over their eyes when mugging them.

Thomas Kay Woolen Mill, Salem, Oregon
Thomas Kay Woolen Mill, all powered by water.
Salem has one other historic home, the Bush House Museum, which unfortunately we were not able to visit as we ran out of time.  This home can also only be toured with a guide.

Oregon State Capitol

We also visited Oregon’s State Capitol.  To be honest, the building itself is not very attractive from the outside.  It looks like a large white box with an odd cylindrical piece on top.  We visited near the end of the day, after the state senators, representatives, and Governor had left for the day.  The inside of the building is better looking than the outside.  We were able to view the Senate Chamber, the House Chamber, and even the Governor’s office. I enjoyed the carpets with trees and fish, representing some of Oregon’s important resources.  Did you know Oregon is a huge producer of Christmas trees?


Governor's Office in the Oregon State Capitol
The Governor will see you know.

Salem’s Restaurants

For being such a sleepy town, Salem has some surprisingly excellent restaurants.  The first restaurant we tried was Crooked House Bistro.  The bistro serves French inspired cuisine.  The owner and chef was cooking when we dined.  Everything was fantastic and they use local products. 
Crooked House Bistro Salem Oregon
Any restaurant with a pig theme has to be good, right?
Another surprise was Andaluz, a tapas restaurant in downtown Salem.  Our waiter at Crooked House Bistro highly recommended it.  We gained a love of tapas during our travels in Spain, and this Oregon restaurant did not disappoint. 

Andaluz Salem Oregon
Tapas and cocktails at Andaluz.
We also ate lunch at Wild Pear, also in downtown Salem.  This restaurant only serves breakfast, lunch, and happy hour.  The Wild Pear offers a number of fresh and healthy options, as well as some decadent desserts.

Salem’s Accommodations

Since Salem is more of a political and business destination, there were not many exciting hotel options, especially since we were traveling with our dogs.  I decided to try out a VRBO (vacation rental by owner) for the first time, and was extremely pleased with the result.  We rented a beautiful mountain cabin style home for a very reasonable price.  This is especially an excellent option if you are traveling as a family or group, as the home has three bedrooms and sleeps six to eight people.  We never met the owners as we arrived very late at night, but I corresponded by email with Cheryl and she was always extremely pleasant and friendly, and the house was immaculate. 

Salem Oregon VRBO
Our VRBO in Salem.
So if you are planning a trip to Oregon, why not give Salem a visit?  It deserves more attention than it receives.

I used Frommer's Oregon to plan our trip to Oregon.

Travel the World: Visitors to Oregon’s state capitol, Salem, can explore the Historic Deepwood Estate, Willamette Hertitage Center, and Capitol building.

Did you enjoy this article? Want more travel stories and inspiration delivered straight to your inbox?
Get an email when we publish our next one! Just enter your email address below.

Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.